Startribune.com digital sports editor Howard Sinker used to cover the Twins and now shares season tickets with friends in Section 219 of Target Field. He blogs about baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan who loves the game, doesn’t always believe the hype and likes hearing what others think. Howard sometimes talks about sports with Cathy Wurzer on MPR's Morning Edition.
What do the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins have in common? They're all 0-3.
The difference between the Eastern teams and the local team is in the likelihood of losing 100 games or so.
Even before things started to come unwired toward the end of spring training, the debate over the weakest team in the AL Central always included a heavy dose of Twins talk. That was before Justin Morneau was relegated to DH and two of the expected five starting pitchers opened the season not in the rotation.
A team without much margin for error, even to reach .500, was being forced into make-do mode before the first pitch in Baltimore.
Add to that the compromises that had been struck by design and the recipe is there for an awkward season that could turn the Twins into successors to the pre-Rubio Timberwolves in how they are perceived in Minnesota.
Some of the compromises were on glaring display during the opening series of losses to the Orioles.
*When Morneau is the full-time DH -- a best-use decision for his health -- it means that Ryan Doumit has to use a glove. When he was signed as a free agent, the Twins made it clear that it was for his bat, not his defense. On Friday, he misplayed a deep fly ball into a triple -- taking a bad route and having the ball go off his glove -- that helped Baltimore stretch its 2-0 lead into 4-0. Ben Revere was the starting right fielder in the next two games, a compromise because his subpar arm is more suited for left, the position that Josh Willingham is playing, Gardy said, because Willingham is more comfortable there. (If you missed it, Willingham mishandled two balls for errors on Saturday.)
*The starting rotation is compromised by its reliance on hope: Hope that Francisco Liriano's spring training is more indicative of how he'll do than his 2011 season, that Scott Baker would be healthy and Carl Pavano would return to something close to his 2010 form. Saturday's start for Liriano was promising -- until the second inning. Baker, who should be the strongest starter, is out with arm problems and Jason Marquis isn't ready yet because of the attention he's properly paid to his daughter's health. Add to that Liam Hendricks' food-poising bout and Pavano's lack of velocity on Opening Day and the Twins are 5-for-5 in rotation issues just three games into the season. Are we going to have to hear about 2012 as Perfect Storm, the sequel?
*Over the winter, Terry Ryan opted to duplicate the painful path of 2011 in regard to looking for relievers. The Twins opted against the numerous veterans who were on the market -- save for re-signing Matt Capps -- in favor of another venture to the discard rack for guys no longer wanted by their previous employers. A bunch of them didn't make it out of spring training; a couple of them didn't look so good in Baltimore. Just after the TV guys were talking Saturday about Jared Burton's track record of not giving up home runs, two guys took him deep. Matt Maloney turned 1-0 into 3-0 on Sunday, in part because of a glaring mental mistake that resulted in a double steal. (See: Doing the little things right.) You were warned that a good March means little in April. Anyone remember Keith Comstock? Joe Klink? Tom Klawitter? Don't make me recite three decades of names.
Beyond those compromises, the Twins spent the opening series making three Orioles starting pitchers with mediocre (at best) career records look like C.J. Wilson, Jared Weaver and Dan Haren, the three Angels pitchers whom the Twins are scheduled to face at Target Field this week. Will the Twins will make those three look like Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller and Bert Blyleven? And for all of the appreciation of Anthony Swarzak's work on Sunday, if he wore Orioles colors, we'd be talking about him in the same terms that we've used for that team's starters.
Also, Gardy had issues with Danny Valencia's defense, Burton and Joe Mauer's inability to grasp the scouting report on Nick Markakis (No changeups, darn it) and Maloney's failure to watch runners. Combine that with a top-of-the-order that got four singles in three games and the other statistical shortcomings that should shake themselves out, and you have 0-3 with the next 10 games against postseason-built opponents.
Allow me to cherry-pick some numbers for a second: The Twins managed to finish 36 games under .500 in 2011 despite a midseason stretch of winning 30 out of 50 games. Take away that middle third and the Twins, counting this year's opening series, have a .287 winning percentage (33-82) going back to the start of last season.
For those of you who need to bring a math question to class this week, try this: A team that plays .287 baseball over a 162-game season suffers how many losses?
I'm not saying it will be that bad. The 1991 Twins lost nine of their 11 games (with Jack Morris going 0-3, 6.38) before getting straightened out and winning the World Series. The 1987 Twins, the other Series champions, gave up more runs than they scored and had a .358 winning percentage on the road.
Teams can find ways to overcome their shortcomings, so you'd be jumping to conclusions by kissing off the season with 159 games to play. (Offstage voice: OK, I'll give it another week.)
I am saying that the first weekend of games gave us very little about which to be optimistic. Will the first week of home games be any different?
You're not foolish to wonder.
In the office, we're starting to talk baseball without feeling self-conscious about it.
La Velle is preparing for the Diamond Awards banquet next Thursday at Target Field, which is your best chance to see him (and other sports reporters) all dressed up with someplace to go. And Joe C. is off on a secret mission that has taken him somewhere warm for a few days. Don't ask. Details will surface soon enough.
And the Twins are on the road, playing schools and local gathering places around Minnesota as part of their Winter Caravan, with TwinsFest coming at the end of next week. It's a good thing that TwinsFest is back at the Metrodome after being forced to Blaine last season by the roof collapse. I'm not sure that charging $5 for photos, which used to be free, is a fan-friendly thing coming off a 99-loss season.
But revenue streams are revenue streams, I guess, and if it helps pay for Josh Willingham...
Here's the autograph-session schedule, including price lists and assorted restrictions.
Here's the Twins Caravan schedule. Maybe Trevor Plouffe and Dan Gladden will buy you a burger at the Hardee's in Windom on Wednesday
If you're going to pay for more stuff, here are a couple of Section 219 recommendations:
Seth Stohs of the TwinsCentric crew just published his 2012 Twins Prospect Handbook, which includes profiles on more than 160 minor-league players in the organization. Seth knows his stuff and has extraordinary contacts within the Twins minor-league system.
You can order the book here.
My friend Julian Loscalzo and his posse are holding their 4th annual Last Hot Stove League Banquet and Charity Auction next Friday (Jan. 27) at the Prom Center in Oakdale. (I know Oakdale sounds exotic and far away for some of you, but it's just on the other side of St. Paul and the Prom is less than a mile off I-94. So that's not an excuse.) Former Twins pitcher Scott Erickson and team president Dave St. Peter, who is the most accessible big-league team executive in Minnesota sports (by miles and miles) are on the program
The "last banquet" thing stems from Julian trying to end the banquet a few years back and -- in part because of Bill (Spaceman) Lee, Corey Koskie, Mike Veeck, Tim Tschida and others -- being a colossal failure at doing so.
There's a charity auction that benefits St. Paul's Dunning Little League. (Yes, you can bid on going to a Twins game with me -- or have both tickets and tell me to stay home.) Veeck will be there, as well as former Red Sox pitcher and Minnesota guy Dana Kiecker. And they'll be honoring a very special Citizen of the Year. Says Julian: "This year's Citizen Award will be going to a very loquacious, yet retiring, individual." John Gordon? Jon Huntsman? Jim Kleinsasser? You'll have to come to find out.
Tickets are $30 in advance (available at Anodyne Coffee in Minneapolis and Golden Thyme Coffee in St. Paul) and $35 at the door. Some years, you've gotten free beer by getting there early enough. "Batting practice" starts at 5:45 p.m.; "Game time" is 7:10 p.m.
See you someplace soon.
Morneau down .. and if he's really back in six weeks I'll buy root beer for the house.
Delmon down ... and who knows for how long.
Middle infield reverts ... both in the field and at the plate.
Mauer goes .667 ... in games started on the road trip.
Just when you wanted to believe that the Twins were making their run toward the top of the AL Central, they lose five straight and drop again to the bottom of the division.
There's not much sophisticated analysis to do here: They played badly against teams where mistakes aren't forgiven. I'm still trying to decide whether it's worse to give the big bashers in the Milwaukee lineup extra chances to inflict damage or to watch Carlos Gomez have a big game against his old team.
No, that's not a backhanded way of saying that Gomez should still be here. Look at the numbers. He is what he is.
Yes, the Twins were playing better when the Rochester lineup was in fuller effect. But anyone who watches enough baseball knows that reserves can only carry on like that for so long before their games are figured out and they need to readjust to become effective again. Luke Hughes and his 5-for-30 (all singles) over his last 10 games in the latest example.
On a more macro level, it's the difference between the Danny Valencia's .311/.351/.448 offense as a rookie and his .216/.272/.359 numbers this year.
In other words, players with experience are needed to step up. And that isn't happening right now beyond Michael Cuddyer and, usually, the starting pitchers.
Now, it's clear that Morneau was playing at something less than 100 percent pretty much from Opening Day and with Mauer ... well, you can read so much more about that stinky stew elsewhere that I'm not wading in today. If you missed it, Jim Souhan's take on Mauer is worthwhile reading.
Delmon was putting up the worst numbers of his career before he got hurt and Casilla spent the last five games of the road trip starting to undo some of the good will he'd garnered during his hot stretch. Players stumble, but he needs to snap out of it quickly.
From the weekend reports, it sounded like Jason Kubel will be ready to return soon, and he'll need to come back and pick up the pace that set him apart from the others in April and May. Gardy can use Jim Thome as his DH now, which should be another upgrade. And there was optimistic talk about Denard Span, but I'll believe that when I see it, which I hope is soon.
Yes, I like Ben Revere, but a .300 on-base percentage isn't what I want from my leadoff hitter. When Span comes back, Gardy can go Revere-Span-Kubel in the outfield most of the time with Cuddyer at first base. Revere will make a fine No. 9 hitter, if Tsuyoshi Nishioka hasn't locked up that spot.
The season isn't a lost cause. Twenty of the next 24 games are at Target Field -- with the other four being in Chicago, where the Twins have played like its a second home. The stretch on either side of the All-Star Game consists of a series apiece against the other teams in the AL Central, concluding with four against Detroit. By the end of that stretch, fans should know beyond any doubt how they should approach the rest of the season.
I misread the Jose Mijares-Mauer thing Saturday night in terms of Gardy's reaction. His initial comment was that Mijares shouldn't have thrown all fastballs to Prince Fielder. I blogged Saturday that Gardy seemed to be taking Mijares' side, but Gardy later pointed out what I had also said in the post -- that the pitcher has the final say and Mijares should have shaken off Mauer until getting the sign that he wanted.
More than anything, I suspect that Gardy was miffed that the whole deal became the story of the game.
I do stand by my contention that the dugout's desire prevails over all -- and if Gardy didn't like seeing fastball after fastball, he should have gotten Mauer's attention and had the catcher call for something else.
An interesting weekend: Two runs in two games... One win and one loss... Nick Blackburn dazzles... Brian Fuentes arrives and throws four save-making pitches... Jim Thome's back goes creaky... Orlando Hudson has trouble with his ankle and then his grip... Delmon Young runs a route on a key fly ball that makes him look like Javon Walker... Manny Ramirez heads for Chicago.
And today we take a deep breath and pause: The Twins have a 4 1/2-game lead with five weeks before October baseball.
A year ago today, the Twins beat Texas 5-3 in Jon Rauch's Twins debut, which put them 4 1/2 games out of first and raised their record to 65-65. That deficit would grow to seven games before the mad rush that led to Game 163 and the AL Central title.
So the advice here is to keep from getting smug.
Yeah, the Twins should win the division. And with some luck, Boston will use its seven remaining games against the White Sox to create a three-game mash-up in the AL East that will (1) help the Twins and (2) force the battle for two playoff spots into the final weekend. (It's a lot easier for me to root on the side for the Red Sox than the Yankees, which we were forced to do this weekend as their B lineup took 2 of 3 from Chicago.)
That being said, I'd like to share the official (but subject to change) Section 219 goals for September, which La Velle wonderfully referred to over the weekend as OctoberQuest:
*Win the division with enough time to set up things for the postseason. That includes time to set the rotation and get adequate rest for the sore, weary and aging. Pavano, Liriano and Duensing feel like rotation locks -- leaving an interesting battle for the fourth spot among Baker, Blackburn and Slowey (if healthy). Or am I jumping to a conclusion that you want to dispute?
*Clinch the division like they own it. That means NOT running around Target Field slapping fives with the front-row fans and doing a champagne soak after the division clinching-game. (Clinch on the road, maybe?) Tip your caps, show some extra man-love on the field, toast each other in the clubhouse, order really good pizza and talk about (and believe) that the real challenge is ahead. We were too caught up in the moment of Game 163 last season to fully comprehend how the Twins pretty much partied themselves out of Game 1 against the Yankees (before hitting themselves out of Game 2 and running themselves out of Game 3).
*Get Justin Morneau healthy. That's a hope more than an expectation, unfortunately. As the victim of a lingering injury (foot, walking boot, too many visits to Dr. Felton) a few years back, I know too much about the frustration of doing all the right things and not having enough to show for it. Anyone who tells Morneau to "man up" is an idiot. Obviously, having Morneau's bat and glove at 100 percent would make a good team that much better.
*Get the other guys healthy too. I like the roster a lot more with Jose Mijares as the third bullpen lefty and Nick Punto as the fifth infielder than if the Twins have to count on them more heavily, as they have the past two seasons. And more than if they don't have 'em at all.
*Absolutely and completely make the White Sox' acquisition of Manny Ramirez totally irrelevant.
Is this too much to ask?
It made sense for the Angels to let Brian Fuentes go in a waiver deal. They weren't going to bring him back in 2011 and they feel good about having Fernando Rodney step into the closer's role for now -- and for 2011. Plus, the Angels are in the closing weeks of a disappointing season and the post-trade quotes from their general manager about not giving up on this season have the scent of an ethanol plant on a bad-wind day. (The Angels are 10 1/2 games behind Texas and third in the AL West.)
With Rodney around, Fuentes took on the role of the quarterback who was less popular with the fans than the second-stringer sitting on the bench. (Of course, that's an affliction currently absent in Minnesota.)
Despite leading the majors in saves in 2009, Fuentes was a target of boos from many Angels fans. They were particularly unforgiving, apparently, because of the home run in gave up to A-Rod in the 11th inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. The Angels had scored in the top of the 11th and A-Rod tied it off Fuentes in the bottom of the inning. The Yankees won in the 13th.
The Angels fell behind two games to none and went on to lose in six.
Yet, that pitch was enough for one Angels blogger to describe that situation as "that awful pitch to Alex Rodriguez in the playoffs that might have cost the Angels the ALCS."
After the trade, Fuentes was asked if he felt appreciated by Angels fans. His response, in the Los Angeles Times: "I don't know. I feel like I was pitching on the road quite a bit here. I came in to a lot of boos. But the fans here come out in droves, they're here to be entertained, and one way or another, they're going through my frustrations and my success."
This season, Fuentes went on the disabled list after an Opening Night save against the Twins (a back muscle strained while lifting weights) and struggled for a spell upon his return. In his first two months back, he had a 6.61 ERA and three blown saves. In his next 20 games, he gave up one earned run in 20 innings, a hot run that ended when he gave up three runs in a get-some-work inning against Tamba Bay on Tuesday.
He's been megatough on lefties -- who are batting .132/.209/.158 against him. That's five hits and 15 strikeouts in 44 plate appearances.
Fuentes' contract is guaranteed only through this season and it's improbable that he'll meet the condition -- 55 games finished -- for it to be automatically renewed in 2011.
But he's come to an interesting situation in Minnesota. There's the title race into which he's been thrust, plus the sorting-out process over the winter that will involve the bullpen in a big-time way with Joe Nathan's rehab, Matt Capps' presence, Jesse Crain's current dazzle and a host of other set-up guys.
That's an exercise for later.
For now, the new lefty's goal should be to get some love from Twins fans. That'll mean things are going well.
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